ATHENS, May 17 — Greeks are voting with their wallets and pulling euros out of the banks in fear that their country may leave the European single currency despite the declared determination of EU powers Germany and France to keep Athens in the monetary union.
Central banking sources said the European Central Bank has stopped lending to some Greek banks because they had not been successfully recapitalised. The sources did not name the banks but said they have to go to the Bank of Greece for emergency liquidity assistance. The ECB declined comment.
As financial markets shuddered over the deepening turmoil in Athens yesterday, governments of other troubled euro zone states from Spain to Ireland voiced concern about the impact on their own shaky finances.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told parliament his country faced trouble financing itself as borrowing costs shoot up to “astronomic” levels. Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said Dublin’s plan to return to capital markets in late 2013 might not be achievable because of the uncertainty.
A chorus of sceptical politicians and central bankers from London to Ottawa predicted the euro could fall apart unless European governments act more decisively to save the currency.
Greek President Karolos Papoulias told political leaders that citizens were withdrawing their money due to “great fear that could develop into panic” at the risk of a debt default and exit from the euro area, according to minutes of their meetings posted on the presidency’s website.
He quoted the central bank chief as saying about €800 million (RM3.2 billion) had been taken out in a single day. The head of the International Institute of Finance banking lobby, Charles Dallara, said money was leaving Greece at a growing pace due to political uncertainty.
“There has been a pick up of deposit flight from Greece but I think that is ‘stabilisable’ once you get a new government in place, if that government reaffirms its intention to remain in the euro zone,” Dallara, who was chief negotiator for private sector holders of Greek bonds, told reporters in Ireland.
The damage to the rest of Europe if Greece were to leave the euro would be “somewhere between catastrophic and Armageddon”, he said.
Papoulias, who tried in vain to broker a national unity government, appointed a senior judge, Panagiotis Pikrammenos, as caretaker prime minister yesterday until a second general election in just over a month is held on June 17.
The failure of his talks to avert a repeat election sent judders around financial markets, hitting global share prices and other riskier assets, although sentiment steadied later.
Investors turned to the US dollar and safe-haven German bonds while the euro dipped at one point to a four-month low below US$1.27 before recovering slightly. Spanish and Italian bond yields spiked and a key index of European shares fell to its lowest level this year.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and new French President Francois Hollande sought to quell talk of a possible Greek departure from the euro zone after their first meeting on Tuesday evening, which focused on ways out of the 17-nation currency area’s debt crisis.
“We agreed that we want Greece to stay in the euro,” Merkel told a news conference in Berlin, adding that Athens must respect the conditions set in a second international bailout agreement signed in March.
Nearly two thirds of Greeks voted on May 6 for parties of the radical left and far right which oppose the terms of the EU/IMF assistance programme, which has imposed steep wage and pension cuts, deepening a four-year recession.
Policymakers from European Union states and the European Central Bank have warned they would stop sending Athens the cash it needs to stay afloat if a new government tears up the plan.
European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said the Greek people must now make a fully informed decision understanding the consequences for their country’s future.
“The ultimate resolve to stay in the euro area must come from Greece itself,” Barroso told a news conference.
But many Greek voters believe they can stay in the euro without abiding by the conditions imposed to obtain the bailouts, as promised by Alexis Tsipras, the charismatic 37-year-old leader of the surging leftist SYRIZA party.
A second opinion poll showed that SYRIZA, which opposes the austerity conditions attached to the assistance programme, is consolidating gains and is on track to become the biggest group in parliament in a re-run vote, pulling ahead of mainstream pro-bailout centre-left and centre-right parties.
The determination to keep Greece in the euro spelled out by Merkel and Hollande may be undermined by comments from several EU finance ministers and IMF chief Christine Lagarde, who have publicly envisaged a possible Greek exit.
Merkel’s office complained to Austria after Finance Minister Maria Fekter suggested this week that Greece could be thrown out of the EU as a result of its economic crisis, the newspaper Oesterreich reported.
Lagarde said on Tuesday that Greece would either have to be given more time and money to meet its debt reduction targets or else euro zone countries would have to begin planning for its exit.
In Madrid, Rajoy voiced the alarm of a country that could be next in the firing line if Greece left.
“I don’t want Greece to exit the euro,” he said, as Spain’s risk premium over benchmark German 10-year bonds rose to more than five percentage points, a euro era high.
“I believe it would be a major error, it would be bad news and I believe we have to guarantee the sustainability of public debt and then all of us comply with our commitments, which is what we are doing in Spain, what Italy is trying to do and what all the other countries are also trying to do.”
In a blow to Rajoy’s efforts to clean up Spain’s debt-laden financial sector, shares in recently nationalised lender Bankia tumbled 10 per cent yesterday after it delayed first quarter results, raising fears that the government will have to inject more cash.
Bankia lies at the core of concerns about Spanish banks’ problems after a 2008 property crash. Many analysts believe Madrid or the EU will have to inject funds to avert a collapse of the financial system, worsening the euro zone debt crisis.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, whose heavily indebted country is also in markets’ sights despite economic reforms praised by the IMF, said that US President Barack Obama was seriously concerned about the euro zone situation, which will be on the agenda of a G8 summit in Camp David at the weekend.
The White House said Obama and Monti agreed on the need to intensify efforts to revive economic growth and job creation in Europe, apparently siding with Hollande in his drive to temper German-led austerity policies.
Among the sceptical chorus, British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament in London of the euro zone: “It either has to make up or it is looking at a potential break-up. That is the choice they have to make, and it is a choice they cannot long put off.
Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, a frequent scourge, said Europeans should abandon the single currency if they were not willing to do more to assist member states in trouble.
“They have to do the right thing, use some of their taxpayers’ money to bail out some of the weaker members of the euro zone – or start moving away from the euro zone and just say this was an experiment that has not worked,” he told CTV television. — Reuters